Latest Drug War News

GoodShop: You Shop...We Give!

Shop online at and a percentage of each purchase will be donated to our cause! More than 600 top stores are participating!

The Internet Our Website

Global and National Events Calendar

Bottoms Up: Guide to Grassroots Activism

Prisons and Poisons

November Coalition Projects

Get on the Soapbox! with Soap for Change

November Coalition: We Have Issues!

November Coalition Local Scenes

November Coalition Multimedia Archive

The Razor Wire
Bring Back Federal Parole!
November Coalition: Our House

Stories from Behind The WALL

November Coalition: Nora's Blog

August 6, 2004 - The Guardian (UK)

The True Price Of Prohibition

Drug-Related Crime Costs More Than the Home Office's Annual Budget, but Treatment for Users Is Underfunded and Locked into Punishment

By Danny Kushlick, director of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Labour and the Tories are fighting over the law and order baton in the race for government. But both parties are committed to a regime that arguably causes more crime than any other single policy. In the 2004 comprehensive spending review last month, Gordon Brown earmarked just under UKP15bn to run the Home Office in 2007-08, up more than UKP4bn on 2002-03 but a billion less than the UKP16bn that the government estimates to be the annual cost of drug-related crime. Could it be that some of this expenditure is actually creating this crime? Is there a policy elephant that has hidden itself where no one can see it?

Transform estimates that drug prohibition has cost between UKP100bn and UKP200bn over the past 20 years. The government estimates that it currently costs UKP20bn a year.

In 1961 the UK signed up to the UN convention on drugs, joining over 150 member states in pledging to criminalise the production, supply and use of a selection of psychoactive substances. This was the definitive moment when global drug prohibition came into being. Ten years later the then home secretary, Jim Callaghan, introduced the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Then there were fewer than 5,000 problematic drug users in the UK. There are now an estimated 280,000, mostly using heroin and/or cocaine.

Unfortunately the chancellor does not control the price of opium- or coca-based products. That is left to the unregulated illegal market. As a result of the risk attached to the trade, profit margins exceed that of any other commodity on the planet - 2000% to 3000% between production and use is not unheard of, a gift horse for organised criminals. The knock-on effect of the price hike at street level is to make a daily habit far too much for most people to afford. An average heroin habit starts at UKP50 a day; a crack binge can run into hundreds. Problematic users on ordinary incomes often resort to crime to support their habit.

There are 8 million heavy drinkers in the UK of whom 2 million are very heavy drinkers. The crime costs associated with the misuse of alcohol are UKP7.3bn a year - most of it violent crime. There is little property crime associated with alcohol use and none committed by the UK's 12 million tobacco users. Our million prescription tranquilliser addicts are not begging on street corners or breaking into houses. A far smaller population of heroin and crack users commit far more crimes, purely because their daily habit is prohibitively expensive.

As part of its welcome review of British sex laws the government estimated that 95% of street prostitution is related to crack and heroin use. Most of the women plying their trade by the road do so to get a rock of crack, and will repeat the cycle for 36 hours or so until they crash out, using heroin until the cycle begins again.

Lest you think that legal regulation would be a panacea, imagine 12 million heroin addicts instead of tobacco users, a world where crack was aggressively marketed to young people using techniques perfected by the likes of British American Tobacco and alcopops retailers. Haven't we got enough legal drugs on the market to tempt our children?

So, let's all pretend that young people are prey to evil pushers, rather than self-determining individuals who, like adults, make some lousy decisions. And if they screw up, let's make sure that, on top of everything else, they have the long arm of the law to deal with.

Problematic use is clearly linked to social deprivation and only tackling its root causes will significantly reduce the numbers of new problem users. It is no coincidence that Britain has some of the highest levels of problematic use in Europe and one of the widest gaps between rich and poor.

Prohibition is a major cause of theft, is responsible for violent turf wars, contributes to urban degeneration and makes criminals of millions of otherwise law-abiding people.

The UK locks up more people than any other western European nation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that somewhere between 30% and 80% of the prison population are property offenders funding a heroin or crack habit. Prohibition also contributes significantly to the destabilisation of most of Latin America, Afghanistan and the Caribbean.

So let's treat our way out of this mess: UKP573m is earmarked for treatment of our quarter of a million illegal drug users (compared with UKP100m for alcohol treatment). This treatment spending is delivered primarily through the criminal justice system: the Criminal Justice Intervention Programme is the newest flagship scheme to reduce offending among problematic users.

The effect of prohibition is to force up the price of illegal drugs, causing problematic users to steal and be identified through the courts. They are then - and only then - provided with treatment programmes of highly variable quality. This means that most of our money is spent enforcing the law, the public bears the brunt of the crime costs and the policy appears to be "tough on crime". The government is effectively running a harm maximisation policy, implementing a crime reduction policy masquerading as treatment.

The reaction to all this from journalists, parliamentarians, NGOs and academics is surprisingly muted. In 2002 the Observer polled a cross-section of adults on a range of drug policy issues: 45% believed that levels of street crime and burglary would be reduced if hard drugs were decriminalised.

If nearly half the adult population understands that prohibition creates property crime, why don't policy makers, the press, criminologists and NGOs involved in crime reduction and penal reform?

Prohibition will continue so long as its potential critics remain silent. And home secretaries of all political hues will continue to trumpet reductions in crime, while pursuing the policy that doubles it. Next time the crime figures are announced in the news, look carefully - there may be an elephant in the room.

For the latest drug war news, visit our friends and allies below

We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.

The Drug Policy Alliance
Drug Reform Coordination Network
Drug Sense and The Media Awareness Project

Working to end drug war injustice

Meet the People Behind The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

Questions or problems? Contact